Oddworld Soulstorm is set to launch on April 6, and I couldn’t help but think back to one of my all-time favorite video games: Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. This sidescroller captured my attention when I first saw my older brother play it in 1997, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. Back then, my intrigue was limited to its gore, humor, and the infamous platforming needed to escape scrabs and paramites. But more than 20 years later, this game is much more than a sidescroller fighting against anti-capitalism; it is also a metaphor for Black women’s experience in the workplace and how we are all Abe in Oddworld.
Black women often take the role of Abe in the workplace—getting along with everyone to keep the peace. But then something happens that shows work environments aren’t safe for Black women. And like Abe, it sets us up to begin our escape from corporate overlords. In the game, to get the good ending, you must save everyone to save yourself, and when you don’t, the bad ending has Abe dying at the hands of the glukkon Molock and his henchman, a slig.
While the “best choice” is to save everyone in the game, I’m not so sure that is the best scenario for Black women in the workplace. For us, it can go one of two ways: we can save as many people as possible through calling out discrimination, or simply leave altogether to save ourselves. Just like the game, Black women have choices, and just like the player, the choice is in their hands. As such, saving co-workers can help the environment for the better, but it can also hurt Black women mentally, physically, and professionally. On the other hand, if Black women leave without calling issues out, their mental health can still be destroyed and leave a lasting impact on future employment because they internalized these issues alone.
Employee of the Year to Dead Meat
“I was employee of the year, now I’m dead meat,” Abe says in the intro. This is typically how it is for Black women. How was Abe the employee of the year? He kept his head down and he kept working gleefully alongside the status quo. But once he saw glukkons discussing the next product on the market—mudokons—in a flash, Abe awoke from his corporate slumber and became dead meat. It’s not just that Abe saw what was going on, it was also because he decided to take action, so he became enemy number one.
We too suffer once we divert from the status quo. Black women are ”working while Black +” where there is racism, sexism, and if you’re queer, homophobia throughout spaces that claim to want our diverse perspectives. When Black women are hired in spaces that want diversity and inclusion on the surface but lack essential policies to reflect that, we face microaggressions and racism in the workplace.
An Essence magazine study reported 45% of Black women have faced racism applying to a job and 44% during promotion or equal pay negotiations. As Black women enter workspaces and advocate for themselves, and ultimately others, they are pushed out while less experienced colleagues receive promotions. We watch other people be eaten like paramites and scrabs—keeping our heads down because some fights aren’t worth losing sleep over. Literally, Black people lose an hour of sleep in comparison to others just because of discrimination.
But what happens when we keep our heads down? Of course, everything is easier if you’ve “lucked out” to work for a mildly insensitive company. Because you can keep to yourself—especially when you’re not on the chopping block, if only for a little bit of time. But eventually, it happens to you: A microaggression—a situation you’re on the receiving end of that hurts you, but for the aggressor, is harmless. For example, randomly touching a Black woman’s hair, mimicking Black speech, and using certain words as dog whistles to signal racism without saying it out loud.
Cue Abe running out of the prologue screaming “get me out of here.” He’s being chased by a slig after learning the truth in the first part of the game where players take over. Though he is not saving mudokons immediately, he is beginning to learn how. Players are on that journey with him, learning how to platform each Zulag to save all 150 of Abe’s people to win.
But it is not that easy for Black women. Black women may not scream out loud, as many don’t want to be reduced to the angry Black woman stereotype, but they are screaming on the inside. Black women then plan their escape, learning the fundamentals of how to “play the game” so they can get out unscathed. However, there's no one to turn to to save Black women, and so they either leave with the promise of something better, or they stay and fight and arguably still lose—often alone in a way that not many people understand on a fundamental level.
Who’s Going to Rescue Me?
The question isn’t whether Black women get the “good ending” by stopping all production and corporate greed to live free or the “bad ending” where we die. It’s more complicated than that. If it were as simple as saving other Black people from harm and, by proxy, other people of color, some Black women would do it. In fact, Black women in and out of diversity and inclusion positions put themselves on the line and don’t get paid for it all the time. Unlike Abe who is freeing mudokons without pay, we all still live in a society that requires us all to make money, so a lot of the unpaid labor puts Black women in harm’s way.
Although Black women aren’t throwing grenades to set off bombs or dodging slicers and sligs, we are speaking up. However, it's coming back to bite a lot of us in the behind, and no one is rescuing us from work culture under white supremacy.
So, borrowing from Abe at the end of the game, “Well, I rescued Mudokons, but who is going to rescue me?” When Black women fight for our rights to be seen, to be heard and have power in spaces, it is a benefit to other people of color. We often save people just by speaking out. Sometimes it’s everyone through big policies, or it's the few we can afford to help. But it is not always the same the other way around, so we learn to escape for ourselves.
Escaping to be Free
Like Abe said, “I just had to escape to be free.” Many Black women leave work environments that eat them alive, myself included, because it is the sanest thing to do regardless of who you save. If you can bring people along with you (metaphorically speaking) then great, but most of the time you can’t. It’s no surprise that Abe’s Oddysee is so connected to capitalism, but it is interesting how connected it is to Black women in workspaces. A game like this shows that workplace culture isn't safe for us either and is unmoving and unchanging right now, but we can pick our battles wisely.
When you play an Oddworld game, you are playing anti-capitalist material. Knowing how deeply rooted this series is about getting people to think about labor is exciting, and I hope Soulstorm follows in the tradition of telling that story through engaging gameplay.